My kids owe their lives to William Shakespeare. No, really, they do. But let me back up a bit.
I’m not sure when I first became aware of William Shakespeare. No doubt I read a play or two in high school – “Romeo and Juliet”, probably, maybe “King Lear” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – but I have no recollection of doing so. Perhaps I saw a community theater performance in one of the towns where my family resided at one time or another, or maybe there was a traveling troop of players who put on a show as part of a civic arts series that my mother always insisted we attend (thanks, Mom!).
Whatever it was, I knew of Shakespeare from an early age, but it wasn’t until college that a love of Shakespeare grew in me, and even then it came through a back door. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Let there be no noise made, my gentle friends;
Unless some dull and favourable hand
Will whisper music to my weary spirit.
(Henry IV, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 5)
I was a music major in college, specializing in early music. I appreciated the delicacy of expression in the structured, measured works of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, culminating in the genius of the Baroque. Never much of a performer, I didn’t come remotely close to mastering the piano but I held my own on the harpsichord, possibly because playing the harpsichord was a deliberate act, not one contingent on soft or loud, muted or pounding – it simply was glorious music at its essence.
In high school, my band instrument of choice had been the saxophone (the flute and clarinet had already been taken by my sisters, and a foray into trombone playing had proven somewhat disastrous). But seeing that there was a dearth of early music for saxophone (they didn’t even exist before the mid-1800s), I took up the recorder. My school career predated little plastic recorders becoming a default fixture in elementary classes, so the lovely wooden instruments available to me in college became my vehicle into the works I grew to love so much: the madrigals, the pavanes, the chansons, and oh, the lovely galliards!
Before long, I had recruited some other enthusiasts to be part of an early music ensemble. We put on modest concerts, mainly on recorders ranging from sopranino to bass (sackbuts and the like not being all that common in college dormitories), and we had fun. I enjoyed organizing the music we would practice and play, and writing up program notes along with the other small administrative tasks needed.
Then, early in my junior year, the drama department put on a lively rendition of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, and we were asked to entertain during the preshow, between acts, and at the conclusion of the play. And oh, did I have fun! Just for the heck of it, I sat in on many of the rehearsals because I found the process of growth of the production so enthralling! I was hooked.
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.
(Richard II, Act 2, Scene 3)
That summer, my friend Sally got a job as one of the musicians at the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival. My own summer stints as a community organizer (in effect, a babysitter for kids out of school for the summer) and factory worker (separating egg whites from egg yolks – now therein lies a tale!) paled next to the incredibly romantic notion of being part of a Shakespearean summer stock ensemble!
Coming off a disastrous relationship (where my “ex” refused to accept our break up, even though I told him that I never wanted to see him again) I fled to Platteville, Wisconsin to spend some time with Sally. During that week, I felt freer than I had ever felt in my life, surrounded by friendship, creativity, music and the most marvelous language in English history. “Romeo and Juliet”, “Measure For Measure”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. An energetic and welcoming company. A love of Shakespeare and his world. An idyllic, small town setting. I sat in on rehearsals and was part of the bohemian parties afterwards. Usually shy, I found myself drawn in to a group of outgoing, gregarious people who loved what they were doing and who took great pleasure in who they were.
And it wasn’t just the plays. There were elaborate pre-shows, complete with costumed performers juggling and tumbling, trading jokes and insults with the arriving audience, staging sword fights, and always, lots of glorious, glorious music. The pre-show performers could be anyone in the company, regardless of their position. One entertaining juggler/acrobat was the young fellow who designed and ran the lights during the shows. These pre-shows had an overwhelming sense of joie de vivre.
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene2)
That week had intoxicated me, and I managed to make it back to the Festival a few more times that summer, including the final weekend; I was, in fact, Sally’s ride home. There was a reception planned after the last show, with a company party to follow. I was invited to both, but even though I made an appearance, I felt that it was important to let Sally have her time with her friends, to say her good byes without me hanging on. So after a short time, I wandered off to enjoy what had turned into one of the loveliest of summer evenings.
The University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which hosted the Festival, had a lovely campus. That summer, the grass near the theater building was impossibly green and lush. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot through the sumptuous grass, basking in the gorgeous late sunshine. While waiting for Sally I sat enjoying the cool breeze, reflecting on how much I had grown over that summer and holding deep within myself a kernel of exquisite promise for the days that lay ahead.
It was then that the young lighting designer, Barry, walked by. I had gotten to know him slightly over the summer, but he was usually very busy and he lived in town so was not often part of the late night revelries that kept the rest of us up until dawn. Nice enough fellow, though. I smiled at him and said hello. He said hello back, and kept walking. But after taking a few more steps along the sidewalk, he stopped, turned around, and came to where I was sitting. He asked if he could join me, and I said sure. In that sublime moment, we started talking.
We talked and talked, literally the whole night. He took me out to visit a friend, a former high school science teacher and life philosopher, who lived on an 80 acre deer reserve in a log cabin he had built himself out of native wood. Barry and I had to hike a mile from the closest road to his land, and another mile to reach the cabin, across streams and through woods. About halfway there was a delightful little waterfall cascading merrily over a jutting rock, and I swear that if this world held fairies, they would be lingering there, watching and giggling. Dawn caught us just coming up on the cabin; his friend Bob was standing outside stretching upon waking and he welcomed us in as if having strangers show up at first light was a common thing. (I found out later, it was.) We had coffee and talked. Eventually it came time for me to leave, so we hiked back to my car and drove back to town, packed up Sally’s things and then she and I drove away. I had a nine hour journey ahead of me and hadn’t slept a wink, but I had never felt so alive in my life.
Of course that wasn’t the end of the story. Even though I lived a state away, Barry and I stayed in touch. He borrowed his parent’s car and drove seven hours to my house for our first real date: we drove another two hours to Kansas City to see Harry Chapin in concert. In January, we both took a college sponsored trip to England to study Shakespeare (yay for interstate reciprocity between schools!). The following summer, I returned to Platteville but this time I had found a summer job in a nearby canning factory, and was able to stay and be a tacit part of the Festival for its duration.
What can I say? A few years later, Barry and I got married. I took an office job while he pursued a career in lighting design. Three years later (after traveling quite a bit, including a stop in Copenhagen where we visited Castle Kronborg in Elsinore, the setting for “Hamlet”), our son was born. We debated naming him “William” but instead settled on Andrew (with his middle name a tribute to the friend with the cabin in the woods). Three years after that came my daughter. Barry and I have now been married almost three decades, and we’ve seen and have been part of a lot of Shakespeare over those years.
So you could say, Will and me, we have a history. I’ve only shared a token part – the highlights, though. I think that’s enough, unless you want to stop over sometime on a midsummer’s night when a soft breeze is blowing. We can sit on the porch and sip something sweet and cold, and talk. I’ve been known to talk the night away, after all. And maybe, just maybe, if there are fairies in this world, they’ll be watching and they’ll giggle. Somehow, it would seem apropos.
~ Sharon Browning